Tar Heel of the Week

Tar Heel of the Week: Pat Nathan helps women dress and plan for success

CorrespondentNovember 17, 2012 

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Four years ago, Pat Nathan founded Triangle Dress for Success, a nonprofit that helps women find and keep jobs by giving them professional clothing and advice. Started in Durham, the organization has since raised its profile Triangle-wide. It recently became a United Way organization is is helping to take over mentoring services for the now-defunct Raleigh YWCA. Here Nathan poses at the Northgate Mall showroom.

CHUCK LIDDY — cliddy@newsobserver.com

  • Patricia Janette Nathan Born: Oct. 13, 1952, Lumberton Residence: Durham Career: Founder and board chair, Dress for Success Triangle. Director of sustainability, Dell. Awards: Durham County Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “Keeper of the Dream Award,” 2010; Leadership Triangle’s Goodmon Award, 2010; several leadership awards from Dress for Success International Education: B.S., Chemistry, Meredith College; coursework in statistics, N.C. State University Family: Husband Mervyn Groves; four stepchildren; two step-grandchildren Fun fact: Nathan was part of the first class to graduate from Meredith College with bachelor’s degrees in science, rather than the standard Bachelor of Arts degree.

— Pat Nathan was trained as a chemist and groomed as a top executive with the Dell computer company.

But in the past few years, she has learned a new set of skills: collecting, sorting and distributing mountains of clothes, raising funds during a deep recession, and teaching women about everything from effective resumes to well-fitting bras.

Nathan retired from Dell at 55 and founded the Triangle branch of Dress for Success, an international organization that provides women with professional clothing, career counseling and other services.

In her 25-year business career, Nathan says she lamented the dearth of women at the top rungs of the corporate ladder, and became involved in efforts to close that gap. Now, she helps the women referred to her by social service and other agencies to gain a foothold in the work world.

“It’s meant a lot to me to be able to help women be successful at this level,” Nathan says. “We have a lot of fun and a lot of tears. We have people who tell us, ‘You saved my life.’ ”

She started Dress for Success in Durham in 2008. It has since expanded its reach into Raleigh, where the group opened a full boutique and career center last year. Earlier this year, it took over career services for the now-defunct YWCA, using a United Way grant.

Dress for Success Triangle has served more than 3,500 women locally, including more than 1,000 last year alone. It is projected to help 1,500 women next year, when it will also launch a job-placement program with its business partners.

Nathan, 60, who chairs the Dress for Success board, recently hired a full-time director to handle day-to-day operations, allowing her to spend more time working with women directly. She still keeps a full schedule, where she has always been an unpaid volunteer.

Executive Director Debbi Fox-Davis says that with her personal magnetism, and her focus on the women she’s helping, Nathan has helped lure many a volunteer and donor into the group’s circle.

Fox-Davis was impressed herself one of her first visits to the organization’s offices, when Nathan finished a tour and excused herself to start cleaning bathrooms.

“She said, ‘I have to go tactical,’” Fox-Davis recalls. “She great at strategic thinking, but she can also get right down there and do what needs to be done.”

Confidence booster

Last week, Nathan manned the cash register in an unmarked storefront at Durham’s Northgate Mall as a dozen or so Dress for Success clients browsed racks of deeply discounted, high-end clothes and shoes.

It was a slow moment in the four-day sale of excess inventory the group holds several times a year. On Saturdays, when it is open to the public, lines often snake through the mall; the proceeds cover most of Dress for Success’s administrative costs.

Evannia Burch, a single mother who is pregnant, was among the shoppers. She was referred to the program through Durham social services, and has already found a job starting in January.

Burch says her mentor helped her decide on a career path as a substance-abuse counselor. And the details helped, too, such as the tasteful scarf Nathan draped over the rose tattoo on her neck.

“I don’t know where I would be without them,” Burch says. “But I know it wouldn’t be this good.”

More racks of clothes fill a series of rooms in the basement of the mall. Nathan, who once supervised a factory, keeps them meticulously organized.

In another set of rooms, two women are trying on slacks and blazers, posing in front of mirrors as volunteer “image consultants” finesse the outfits.

The women who come to the program are unemployed, and are often victims of domestic violence or plagued by substance-abuse problems. Most are seeking entry-level jobs, while some have college degrees. When they arrive, a rack of clothes is already chosen to fit both their size and the jobs they are seeking.

The experience has the feel of a reality TV makeover. But Nathan stresses that the clothes are just a start. The first outfit gives them the professional appearance, and the confidence, they need for a job interview.

After the fitting, the women also go get help creating resumes, doing mock interviews, learning about networking and other job skills through an assigned mentor. When they land a job, they can come back for a full week’s worth of free clothing.

‘The sound of success’

Nathan grew up in Lumberton, where her mother was a medical secretary and her father an accountant. She went to Meredith College and majored in chemistry.

She went on to N.C. State University, where she worked in a laboratory helping to develop preservation techniques for peanuts.

The work didn’t suit her. It was too isolated, with not enough room for advancement. So she soon took a job with the computer company Data General, now EMC, supervising the production of circuit boards at its Clayton plant.

Her chemistry background initially earned her the job, which required her to maintain the right composition of the baths in which the electronic parts were made. But she soon moved up the management ranks.

She was recruited by Austin, Texas-based Dell in the early 1990s. There, she rose to the position of senior vice president, and was active in efforts to increase the number of women entering technical fields, both through her company and through other professional groups.

In 2000, she moved to London for her job. While in England, she founded the first European chapter of Women in Technology International there. She later formed a chapter in Ireland, where she also met her husband.

It was in Europe that she first encountered Dress for Success. She remembers seeing a poster of a woman, from her chin to her waist, wearing a suit. It read “To some women, this is a life jacket.”

The image stuck with her, after she decided to retire and move back to the Triangle to be closer to her parents, who still live in the area.

She was dismayed by the income disparity in the Triangle, which seemed to belie its international reputation as a prosperous, innovative community.

She says she was fortunate enough not to need a full-time job, and she thought she might volunteer for with Dress for Success. When she saw that there was no such organization in the Triangle, she started one.

Her organization opened in April 2008, and was soon faced with a rapidly contracting economy. Nathan had virtually no fundraising experience, but managed to garner enough support to keep the organization running.

And it has continued to grow, pulling in more partners who refer clients, support the organization monetarily, and, sometimes, hire its clients.

Each time a client gets a job, the employee at the desk of its Durham office rings a bell.

“That’s the sound of success,” Nathan says.

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